9 March 2016 by Liz
In modern society many of us try not to make too many assumptions about people based on what they look like, and doing so is a point of debate. Modern campaigns promote body positive attitudes regardless of physical appearances, and work to prevent the imposition of gender stereotypes on the way children are dressed.
However, the fashion and associated industries are heavily based on the assumption that we want to make ourselves look certain ways to express something of our identities. People dress to please themselves, to fit in with like-minded people, to attract a partner, and to enhance their careers.
If we thought that no-one else cared what we looked like would we spend money on designer clothes, take time to dye our hair, go through the pain of a tattoo or piercing, or undertake body enhancements with the inherent risks of surgery? If we didn’t care to express our identity through our attire we might all wear very standardised similar plain robes as those who actively shun cultural judgements of appearance such as monks.
Expressing our identities through the things we wear is a longstanding part of human culture – some of the objects on display at the Museum of Liverpool from many hundreds of years ago give us hints about the ways people were conveying aspects of their identity in their attire.
Among the items of the Knutsford Hoard are three large gilded silver brooches. These beautifully-crafted items were made in the late 2nd century AD, and would have been valuable items. They are a form of Roman brooch, a ‘trumpet brooch’, which is found only in Britain – a local version of an imported object type . The examples from Knutsford are decorated with attractive moulded swirling patterns. These patterns are of a type of art known as ‘La Tene’ which is found across Iron Age Europe, and would often be described as ‘Celtic’. The presence of ‘celtic’ style decoration on a British type of a Roman object suggests a real mixing of cultural identities in this region in this period.
Another find from the region, recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, is an early medieval strap end – a metal end for a belt or strap. This was probably made in north west England in the 9th or 10th century . This object again shows a hybrid of decorative forms, combining a Carolingian-style shape with perforations – known as ‘openwork’ with a hammered ‘ring and dot’ decoration which is more commonly associated with the native British people (Richards 2011, 54). It’s thought that import of low-value items such as copper-alloy strap ends wouldn’t have been economically viable, so such objects were probably made relatively locally (Kershaw 2013). The artisans working here, then, drew on ideas from far and wide – the Carolingian openwork was derived from the types of objects produced within the Carolingian Empire of central and eastern Europe in the 7th-9th centuries AD. The ring and dot decoration was a simple motif found on many different types of objects from the Roman period onwards which was more likely to have been derived from British culture.
As a society we now feel uncomfortable about admitting that we make judgements based on the way people look, and try hard not to do so. However, how we express ourselves through dress, tattoos, piercings, and jewellery is part of a long historical continuum of using available money to buy items which help us outwardly show our identities.
Kershaw, J. 2013. Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Richards, J. D. 2011 Anglo-Scandinavian identity in Hamerow, H. & Crawford, S. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Oxford University Press, p. 46-61
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